The Movie Gods haven’t been gentle to Wayne Kramer the past few years. After his critical darling The Cooler and a recent cult favorite Running Scared, Kramer ran into some trouble. He went through hell trying to keep Crossing Overtogether after Harvey Weinstein stripped it down to the “important” soft picture Kramer didn’t intend to make. More recently Kramer went through a tumultuous development with Bullet to the Head before exiting the project over creative differences.
But he’s come back with a movie that is very much in his wheelhouse. Pawn Shop Chronicles is a dirty, highly-stylized crime picture which would play nicely as double-bill with Running Scared.
We spoke with Kramer about the film, sex in American cinema and how to get a project greenlit on the spot.
This felt very much like a “Wayne Kramer” movie.
Thank you. It’s been a while since Running Scared, which, for some reason, people seem to associate me the most with. Running Scared is probably my favorite film I’ve directed more so than my first one, The Cooler, because I was able to get what I wanted stylistically out of it and bring a certain energy and excitement to it that you really get crushed with on a low budget. With Pawn Shop Chronicles we had a very low budget on that film, so it was a struggle to try and bring the craft up to the level that you could on a bigger budget.
When you are working with a budget that low, can you still experiment with the camera or do you have to stay more disciplined?
I’m very disciplined in terms that I will storyboard every shot before I get there. When you are on the ground in the real world, you have to be open to improvisation. Maybe an actor doesn’t feel comfortable locked into a certain blocking, so you’ve got to be quick on your toes about it. You definitely, as far as I’m concerned, you have to come in with a game plan and have visualized particular shots.
When I read the script, because I did not write this one, it felt very much like I understood the voice it needed to be told in because it was so extreme in places. It reminded me of an early Coen brothers film with the manic energy of something like Raising Arizona. And contrary to every critic who said that we ripped off Pulp Fiction, that’s just not an influence for me at all. I admire Quentin’s work. We grew up watching the same movies.
Whenever there are stylized dialogue and criminals, movies are always compared to Pulp Fiction.
It shows film illiteracy to me on the part of the critics because it shows that their sort of bar for when this kind of film landed on the radar was Quentin Tarantino. They’re not giving any credit to all these amazing different filmmakers that came before him, whether it be Brian De Palma, Walter Hill, Robert Aldrich, or Sergio Leone, all these kind of influences that Quentin was inspired by the same way that I was.
When Running Scared came out it was the same thing—it was a Quentin Tarantino wannabe. I can understand someone looking at Pawn Shop Chronicles and making that association because it has an anthology of stories that kind of interconnect. But with Running Scared, Quentin has never done anything sort of that transgressive and, I think, brutal and just literally not at all like what I see in his films. He himself came out for that film and was a big fan of it.
It’s weird. I’m not the only one. I just feel like it gets so boring every time a new crime film is out and someone goes, “This is subpar Tarantino…”
Or a poor man’s Guy Ritchie.
Exactly, exactly. They’re the only ones allowed to work in the genre and afford it any kind of originality. A lot of these good films are adapted from novels. A big influence for Quentin was Elmore Leonard, who has been a big influence for anyone in the crime genre, especially in the dialogue.
Right. Do you work differently when adapting someone else’s script?
Maybe, but more out of respect for the material than I feel like I’m in a straitjacket. I wouldn’t have taken the project on if I didn’t like the script, especially on a project like Pawn Shop where there was no money involved. I basically did the movie for free. I just thought somebody needed to bring this crazy screenplay into the world. And Paul Walker, who is a good friend of mine and we’d worked before, brought it to me and said, “I think this is something you might respond to.” He was right. We generally share the same taste when it comes to this kind of material. I just knew it would be an uphill battle because this film was made for a third of the budget of something like Running Scared. Yet, I wanted to bring that style to it.
That’s the big challenge for me. When you have less money to do a film, it’s not the way you shoot it or the actors you can go to. It affects the days, the amount of time you have, and kind of the equipment and the level of craft you can afford. I don’t know if the general audience out there understands when you see a very cool camera move in a film, which may only last like 10 seconds on the screen, you could spend half a day rehearsing that and a couple hours to light it. I mean lighting takes an enormous amount of time. That’s why it’s so cheap to do these found footage films because they don’t have to look like they are movies.
What made that collaboration with Paul work so well the first time that you wanted to revisit it?
He’s very collaborative. He felt he had been playing this character since he was a kid in terms of when he goofed around. He’s a super fun actor to work with. He never makes it about the movie star part of himself. It’s just how he does the work. And he had more invested in the film too, because he was a producer.
You go out and you do something like…I knew that this film would not be a film embraced by the critics. It’s way too transgressive. It’s weird, because they cannot lose themselves in sort of violent, crazy, sort of darkly humorous kinds of films. It sort of takes 10 years for them to sit back and catch the film on cable and go, “You know, maybe I was a little hard on that film.”
I just saw a headline saying “Sadism and laughs don’t mix” for a review headline.
I find in general that they are sort of the most behind the times, rearview looking filmgoers. They tend to sabotage it for a lot of the mainstream audience. There’s so many movies that I remember loving when they first came out and finding out that the critics had just destroyed them, whatever it was, like Scarface. Brian De Palma got Golden Raspberry nominations for that. 30 years later, it’s completely revisionist’s criticism on that film. Another film they destroyed was Tony Scott’s Revenge, which I thought was terrific.
Running Scared is an interesting example because the critics hated on that film when it came out, but it found an audience very quickly on home video. I mean it’s done very well. Now, when the critics review my more recent films, they’re kind of saying, “We wish you were doing more Running Scared,” even though most dumped on it.
One critic was reviewing Pawn Shop the other day and trashing it and going, “It’s not even as fun and like gonzo crazy as Running Scared.” When you go back and read the guy’s review on Running Scared, it’s nothing but beating it over the head with a baseball bat. I don’t even think they remember what they write.
Where does the criticism of being misogynistic come from?
It comes out of probably two things—not really understanding the intent of the filmmaker, but also that maybe you directed a scene way too real. I was called a misogynist, I think, by Slant Magazine on The Cooler for, what, one scene where Maria Bello gets beaten up? But really, that whole scene was how she can’t be broken. I have a problem with violence being depicted in film without consequences. It’s usually that PG-13 kind of violence, the palatable kind of violence that they give a pass to. But when you sort of really feel what a bullet does to a human body, “Oh, no, no, no. That’s sick and twisted!”
And then I think just sexuality in general, whether it’s more outrageous or transgressive. It’s just been weaned out of American films. So when people sit down and see a bona fide sex scene in a movie, they are in shock today. It’s like getting the reaction to Basic Instinct for the first time, or even going back to when people saw The Last Tango in Paris. We came out of a rich period in the ‘70s, even into the ‘80s, where it wasn’t a big deal with nudity on screen, whether it was authentic or even borderline exploitative. Today it’s like, “What is the filmmaker trying to do?”
Going back to actors, I like to put them in a visual universe that I think they dig, like the shots they get to act in and the blocking is very complex. Most actors dig the challenge of that. Smart actors understand when you create an interesting proscenium for them to perform in they are going to come off looking better.
I don’t know of any filmmaker except maybe the top three A-list directors who get every actor they want when they want them. So it’s a process of if the movie gets green lit. You’ve got Paul Walker attached in one role, so it’s going to happen. Then other actors are available or their agents approach you and say, “What about so and so for this role?” And you meet with them.
I find actors tend to want to work all the time. But in terms of what’s become very, very difficult in this business is if you want to get a movie budgeted over $10m green lit, and probably hit the sweet zone of being able to bring production value to it, which is anywhere over 15-25 but still keeping it fairly low in terms of what an overall picture of a budget of a movie is, you have to attract one of the top 10 actors in the business, which are typically men. They are the hardest actors to get because everybody is cannibalizing them. Those guys are basically corporations unto themselves. If Johnny Depp or Will Smith or any of these guys say yes to a project, it’s instantly going to get made.
You spend all your time and energy chasing these guys and they have all the options in the world. You are going up against every major director and every hot director straight out of Sundance. And it’s becoming harder and harder to cast a film because the demands in casting have become so extreme.
For a movie like this, do you try going after those top 10 guys?
Not the most unrealistic ones. You immediately cross off your list guys like Johnny Depp or Matt Damon. First of all, by the time you are prepping the movie you know either they are working or not. And you know which ones chase the paychecks. The intel is there.
Pawn Shop Chronicles is now on DVD and Blu-Ray.